Donald Trump Delivers 'Yooge' Ratings for Fox News

Volatile GOP Frontrunner Helps Draw Record 24 Million Viewers

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The word "huge" is one of Donald Trump's most commonly deployed adjectives, and while the real estate mogul tends to use it in the context of a deal he's executed, or to convey the size of one of his Manhattan skyscrapers, "yooge" also is perhaps the best way to characterize the impact he had on Thursday night's cable ratings.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Fox News Channel's telecast of the first Republican primary debate of the 2016 election cycle drew a staggering 24 million viewers, of which nearly one-third, or 7.94 million, were members of the adults 25-to-54 news demo.

Thanks in large part to the presence of Mr. Trump, who has always made for compelling television, the overstuffed prime-time brawl also drew a larger-than-usual cohort of younger viewers, averaging 6.69 million adults 18 to 49 and 2.56 million adults 18 to 34.

To put the FNC debate tallies into context, the 24 million Americans who tuned in for the big show represent the single largest turnout for any summer TV event this year, topping Game 6 of the NBA Finals on ABC (23.3 million viewers) and Fox's coverage of Team USA's decisive victory in the FIFA Women's World Cup Final (22.3 million).

How yooge was the first GOP debate? Strip sports ratings out of the mix and Thursday night's 10-candidate melee now ranks as the all-time most watched cable telecast in the history of the medium. In fact, this very early salvo on the road to the general election more than doubled FNC's deliveries (11.8 million viewers) during the decisive 9 p.m.-to-10 p.m. broadcast window on Election Night 2012.

Regardless of your opinion of Mr. Trump -- and it's a safe bet that career politicians like Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz wish he'd just go away -- and the outsized impact he's having on the rest of the field, it's impossible to deny that he helped FNC deliver the most entertaining and unpredictable political debate in recent memory. (That a Rosie O'Donnell reference was thrown out before the first Hillary Clinton jab speaks volumes about how Mr. Trump is refashioning the American political conversation in his own pugnacious image.)

Of course, while Mr. Trump's eschewal of politically correct cant and plainspoken ways account for much of his mass appeal among a frustrated electorate, those same qualities may ultimately derail his bid for the nomination. And while it's impossible to predict how long he can keep this up, it probably should go without saying that antagonizing the nation's No. 1 cable news outlet isn't a recipe for longevity.

Case in point: After deflecting FNC host Megyn Kelly's probing questions about some boorish and misogynistic remarks he'd made in the past, Mr. Trump suggested that he could be just as nasty to the moderator, should she proceed with that particular line of questioning. "Megyn, if you don't like it, I'm sorry," he said. "I've been very nice to you, although I probably maybe could not be based on the way you have treated me."

After complaining about FNC's alleged bias against him (after the debate, Mr. Trump told reporters in the spin room that the questions posed to him "were not nice"), the surprise frontrunner would later take to Twitter to insult Ms. Kelly, telling his 3.5 million followers that "she was not very good or professional!"

For all his wild gesticulation and cutting insults, the Donald wasn't the only candidate with an ax to grind. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul were involved in the night's most fiery exchange, as a disagreement over the government's collection of telephone records escalated into a dustup about hugs. This too made for riveting TV.

While FNC can expect its nightly ratings to climb over the course of the election cycle, the network is unlikely to fully capitalize on the next two GOP debates. CNN will televise the Sept. 16 debate form the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., while CNBC will carry the Oct. 28 forum in Boulder, Col. While sibling net Fox Business Channel will host the November debate, the flagship won't get a chance at another big-ticket event until January 2016. If Mr. Trump is still in the running, it's a safe bet that FNC will generate even more significant ratings.